Tying science to policy — for Iowa

Iowans can do better for the environment and should.

160915-59170_dox35x45The Iowa Policy Project has always enlisted the help of students and professors or former professors from Iowa colleges to help produce good research.

IPP founder and researcher David Osterberg, left, in his job as a professor of Public Health at the UI, has been part of the annual statement on climate change signed by researchers and teachers at all the colleges and universities in Iowa.

This year’s statement, released today with 187 signers from 39 Iowa colleges and universities, is about farming to sequester carbon and improve water quality: The Multiple Benefits of Climate-Smart Agriculture.

An excerpt:

Farmers and land managers who have implemented proven conservation practices have positioned Iowa to lead implementation of Climate‐Smart Agriculture. Iowa’s leadership through wider adoption of conservation practices will benefit our state, while these practices lessen human contribution to net greenhouse gas emissions. …

We, as Iowa educators, believe Iowa should play a leadership role in this vital effort, just as our state has already done for wind energy.

Find the full statement here.

Find the news release here.

The statement envisions “a multi‐faceted vision for land stewardship by vigorously implementing federal, state, and other conservation programs” to generate a more diverse landscape. It concludes:

Such a landscape would benefit all Iowans by transforming Iowa’s vast croplands into resources that simultaneously generate food, feed, fuel, a healthier climate, better soils, wildlife habitat, and cleaner waters.

The lead authors are Chris Anderson, who has served as assistant director of Iowa State University’s climate science program, and Jerry Schnoor, co-director of the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, with editorial assistance from senior science writer Connie Mutel of the UI.

Also contributing were: Gene Takle, Diane Debinski and David Swenson, ISU; David Courard-Hauri, Drake; Neil Bernstein, Mount Mercy; Peter Thorne, Greg Carmichael, Elizabeth Stone and David Osterberg, UI; and Kamyar Enshayan, University of Northern Iowa.

The issues raised in this statement fit well with our work at the Iowa Policy Project. We produce papers on water quality and confined animal agriculture, and connect these issues to public policy impacts. What we do at this small policy institute fits into larger questions addressed by academics and policy people in the state.

Iowans can do better for the environment and should.

Solar power shines when most needed

Distributed solar is good for the environment because the electricity produced is clean. It also is likely to come just when it is needed. Let’s make sure we have the policies in place to encourage more solar.

By David Osterberg and Nathaniel Baer

The hot sun we experienced this August not only caused the local electric grid to experience high use, but it also powered solar systems distributed around Eastern Iowa.

The middle of a hot summer day is a time when almost any U.S. electric utility expects to see highest demands during the year. Aug. 11 was going to be one of those days in Eastern Iowa. Peak demands of high electricity use translate to high costs.

So, a day in advance, MidAmerican Energy asked the University of Iowa’s Facilities Management team to cut back the university’s electric load from 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Aug. 11, 2016.

The university has an arrangement with the electric utility to decrease its electric load by cutting back on air conditioning and other usage, when called upon, in exchange for a reduced electric rate. The goal is to reduce costs for all utility customers by encouraging some customers to reduce their electricity use at the highest and most expensive times.

This type of arrangement is a win-win not only for UI and MidAmerican, but also other MidAmerican customers. Utilities often make these arrangements available to large customers as well as residential customers with air conditioning.

The university has two small solar energy systems that produce electricity. The data for one of them, a 38-kilowatt solar array, showed energy production varying during the morning of Aug. 11 (below). During the utility’s predicted peak period of energy use, the solar array’s production rose quickly and continued to be strong for the remaining period.

Basic RGB

Similarly, the solar arrays at Johnson County’s Secondary Roads and SEATS campus began producing much higher levels of solar energy shortly after the 12:30 p.m. high-use period started. These panels also continued with strong production through 5 p.m., when the period ended. (below)


The hot sun caused the MidAmerican system to experience a peak day but also powered distributed solar systems in the area to help meet those higher energy needs.

Distributed solar is good for the environment because the electricity produced is clean. It also is likely to come just when it is needed. Let’s make sure we have the policies in place to encourage more solar.

2016-osterberg_5464David Osterberg is an energy and environment researcher at the Iowa Policy Project. dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANathaniel Baer is the energy program director at the Iowa Environmental Council. baer@iaenvironment.org.


A version of this column ran in the Sept. 6 Cedar Rapids Gazette.

Spreading a friend’s message

“At 93 I am nearing the end of my life on this planet. As a parting message, I want to encourage you in the strongest terms to use your influence to make distributed solar energy a major source of electricity. … Please use your influence.” — Don Laughlin, in his letter to Warren Buffett

I visited an old friend, Don Laughlin, in a nursing home before he died. A stroke had paralyzed half of his body but certainly had not affected his mind. Even with his impending death he was looking toward the future as he spoke with Nathan Shepherd of IPP and me.

Our conversation was about renewable energy, which he had promoted for decades. He told us that one of his many unfinished projects was a letter to Warren Buffett, the owner of MidAmerican Energy, to ask him to be more supportive of rooftop solar power. Nathan suggested to Don that he dictate a letter and that we would send it to the billionaire. And we did.

160810-CLIP-dmr-openletterBut we realized that with probably hundreds of letters every day, Warren Buffett might never hear of Don’s letter. We spoke with the Des Moines Register’s opinion editor, who loved the idea of publishing Don’s letter as an open letter to Buffett. So, two days after we spoke to Don, a third of the Register’s op-ed page was Don’s letter, an introduction by Nathan and me, and a huge picture of solar panels. (Click on image.)

Within several days, Don Laughlin would be gone at the age of 93.

At a celebration of Don’s life at Scattergood School near West Branch August 27, my neighbor Deborah Dakin suggested that while she was sure Don was happy to do one last act to encourage solar power and reduce the effect of climate change, more could be done.

Basic RGBShe suggested that everyone who reads this write to Warren Buffett to ask him to pull his company back from efforts to reduce the return to homeowners from their own rooftop solar. That is because MidAmerican is trying to kill net metering, the ability of a homeowner or business to receive retail rates for any excess electricity they generate beyond their own usage.

Your letter would honor Don Laughlin’s last public activity, and, if it succeeds, each of us will be doing our part to stave off the worse and worst effects of climate change.

IPP-osterberg-75David Osterberg, Co-Founder and Environmental Researcher, IPP


To fund water solutions, why not the obvious? Tax pollutants

Why not the obvious solution? Tax the chemicals that pollute Iowa waters.

Note: A version of this piece ran as a guest opinion in the Sunday, March 6, 2016, Cedar Rapids Gazette.


One answer to the issue of funding water-quality solutions is right in front of us: Tax the pollutants.

The pollutants are Nitrogen (N) and Phosphorus (P). This is well established by the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) that Governor Terry Branstad and the farm industry support. The NRS blames N and P for the pollution that harms Iowa waters and causes the hypoxic or dead zone at the bottom of the Mississippi River.

More than 90 percent of N and two-thirds of the P come from non-point sources, almost all agriculture, according to Iowa State University.

And there is a lot of it. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Census of Agriculture, for 2012, shows about $2.6 billion was spent on “commercial fertilizer, lime and soil conditioners” in that year in Iowa.

Yet, while debate proceeds on how to deal with the pollution caused by those chemicals, it is worth noting that normal Iowa sales tax does not apply to the N or P used in agriculture.

I stopped by my local hardware store to ask if I, a non-farmer, would pay tax on the standard Scotts 10-10-10 garden fertilizer they sell. I would. But farmers do not pay sales tax for theirs. (There is a small fee on chemicals, including N and P for groundwater protection programs, but no general sales tax.)

Since the debate about how to pay for cleaning our waters is in full swing it is time to propose the obvious. Since N and P are the culprits, let’s tax them at the same rate as, say, pickup trucks.

Farmers pay a 5 percent tax on the pickups they use on the farm and off, to pay for their impact on the roads we all use. Since their fertilizer is used on the farm but also flows into the rivers and streams and lakes we all use, costing us all, a similar tax on fertilizer makes sense.

A 5 percent tax on the $2.6 billion in annual farm fertilizer sales in Iowa would bring in roughly $129 million a year, close to the numbers being thrown about to address water quality in the state. It is roughly comparable to what would come from three-eighths of a cent on the general sales tax for the Natural Resource and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund that Iowa taxpayers approved — but which legislators have refused to fund. Over the next 30 years the fertilizer fee would bring in something close to what the Governor wants to take from a tax designed for school infrastructure.

Why not the obvious solution? Tax the chemicals that pollute Iowa waters.

IPP-osterberg-75Posted by David Osterberg

David Osterberg co-founded the Iowa Policy Project in 2001 and was director of the organization for 12 years. He continues to lead IPP research on environmental and energy policy for IPP and is a professor in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa. He served six terms as a member of the Iowa House of Representatives, and served as chair of the House Agriculture Committee. Contact: dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org.

Remembering Dave Hurd

David Hurd believed that people and the environment deserved protection. In all his charitable work, he sought to make this state better.

Dave Hurd supported many Iowa organizations. He had an essential role in our creation of the Iowa Policy Project. In 2001 Joyce Foundation offered our new policy organization a large grant but my grant officer said she wanted to see diverse in-state support. Dave wrote a letter on our behalf to several of his friends who he thought would endorse the work we were beginning at IPP. The amount raised from him and others who responded to that letter gave us the match we needed.

Dave continued to donate to IPP as did many of those who responded to that first fundraising letter. He liked especially our work on water quality but supported our reports documenting the needs of low-income Iowans and our data on fair taxes. He believed that people and the environment deserved protection. In all his charitable work he sought to make this state better. We will miss this great man.

IPP-osterberg-75Posted by David Osterberg, co-founder of the Iowa Policy Project

Reading, ’Rithmetic & Politics

Of course it’s a diversion. May future debate focus on whether the Governor’s proposed diversion is a good idea, not the fact that he has proposed it.

First, Governor Branstad challenged the bounds of basic math — miscounting jobs — and now it’s language arts.

The Governor reportedly got a little testy last week at a Des Moines Register editorial board meeting. Among his complaints: references to a “diversion” of revenue from a state sales tax for school infrastructure to support water-quality improvements. From the Register:

Branstad, in particular, took issue with the idea that his proposal diverts money away from schools.

“I can’t see how you can possibly call it a diversion when schools are going to get at least $10 million more guaranteed every year, plus a 20-year extension,” he said. “They’re sharing a small portion of the growth.”

Well, here’s how you call it a diversion:

[dih-vur-zhuh n, -shuh n, dahy-]
1. the act of diverting or turning aside, as from a course or purpose: a diversion of industry into the war effort.

Under the Governor’s plan, there is a “diverting or turning aside” a share of sales-tax revenues from their currently authorized “course or purpose,” school infrastructure, from FY2017 beginning July 1 this year, to FY2029. This is illustrated by Governor’s own handout on the plan. See the one-page document his office provided the media on Jan. 5.  The graph at the bottom of that page (reproduced below), shows the diversion shaded in blue, beginning with the black vertical line and running to the red dotted line.

Of course it’s a diversion. In fact, the diversion continues if the tax — which would not exist before or after FY2029 without voters’ intent for its use in funding school infrastructure — is extended to FY2049.

May future debate focus on whether the Governor’s proposed diversion is a good idea, not the fact that he has proposed it.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project



Big state, big issues — an obligation for all

We all have an obligation to clean up our rivers lakes and streams and no sector can be exempt. It is not a voluntary matter.

160104-osterberg-map-7x7I put up a new map at the IPP office this morning. It’s a big one — about 4 feet by 6 feet, and it’s impressive on a wall.

What makes it more impressive comes when you think of what that map represents, some 36 million acres of land, and to think of how those acres are used, and what we are doing to protect them.

Even though it’s mainly a road map, we see those roads plotted on a landscape that we know is mostly farmland — rivers, lakes and streams running through it, and dominated by it.

Each five years the United States Department of Agriculture puts out a census of agriculture. The last one from 2012 shows just how agriculture dominates our land. About 24 of the 36 million acres are in cropland nearly all corn and soybeans — though even more land is agricultural since activities like grazing push the total of ag land well beyond 30 million acres. Cropland, woodland and pasture make up so much of the landscape that the category house lots, ponds, roads, wasteland, etc. makes up only 1.4 million acres, or less than 5 percent of the total.

IPP pointed out in a 2010 report Solution to Pollution: It Starts on the Farm that so little land in Iowa is devoted to urban uses (lawns or golf courses) that even if urban application rates of Nitrogen and Phosphorous fertilizer were much higher than that on farms, only 2 percent of the pollution from land application of fertilizer comes from lawns and golf courses.

When sewage treatment plants are included in the urban share of nutrient pollution, agriculture still dominates.

So the take-away message — water pollution in Iowa comes from agricultural land. We all have an obligation to clean up our rivers, lakes and streams and no sector can be exempt — particularly the biggest one. It is not a voluntary matter.

IPP-osterberg-75Posted by David Osterberg, co-founder of the Iowa Policy Project